Media CEOs have addressed a letter to the Prime Minister calling for measures put forward in the Finkelstein and Convergence Reviews to be denounced. This follows Senator Stephen Conroy’s advocating of a ‘public interest’ test on media ownership, which would extend to the radio industry.
Brett Chenoweth, the CEO of APN News & Media, which owns 50% of the Australian Radio Network, was a signatory to the letter. The six other signatories were Nine’s David Gyngell, Seven West Media’s Don Voelte, AAP’s Bruce Davidson, APN’s Brett Chenoweth, News Limited’s Kim Williams, Foxtel’s Richard Freudenstein and Sky News’ Angelos Frangopolous.
Fairfax Media’s chief executive Greg Hywood declined to sign the letter, partly out of concern with its tone.
The unpublished letter, which was obtained by Crikey, addressed three key issues separately: the proposed ‘public interest’ test, the recommendations on management of press complaints; and the tone of the public debate on these matters.
In regards to the ‘public interest’ test, the executives labeled it a “massive increase in regulation” based on “subjective, vague and imprecise” guidelines that “have not worked overseas”.
The strongest arguments the CEOs raised against the test were fourfold. First, that the test would act as a strong disincentive to conducting mergers and acquisitions in the media sector, leading to the sector’s subsequent weakening.
Second, that the “ferociously independent” ACCC already has extensive powers to preserve media diversity, as it is empowered to break up monopolies.
Third, that the test “underplays developments in the digital economy”, by turning a blind eye to the low cost of starting up a media outlet this decade, including the relative ease of creating and promoting podcasts.
Finally, they argued that the test would create a fatal conflict between political expediency and freedom of the press:
“While a “public interest test” may have an appealing sounding ring to it, it is really, in our view, nothing more than a political interest test. It has the capacity to be misused by politicians of all persuasions to block the acquisition of media companies by people they do not agree with or simply do not like.”
A similar argument was put in opposition to the Finkelstein Review’s proposed regulatory body. The CEOs argued that the body would be “dangerous to free speech” due to its government funding, and expressed alarm that journalists could be “fined and jailed” by the body without recourse to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
They claimed that the body “would not work”, as it would be tasked to also regulate bloggers, which given the size of the blogging sphere, would clog the system dramatically. They concluded that self-regulation would be more effective, and the CEOs agreed to “substantially enhance and renew” their companies’ self-regulation mechanisms.
On the tone of the current debate on media regulation, the CEOs said:
“In some of the public debate there has been an overemphasis on coverage that some people believe is egregious with little comment (other than from some media commentators) on the important principle which is at stake here.
“This principle is: press freedom and the need for an independent press to hold all Governments, institutions, business, regulators and others in power to account.”
The CEOs also rejected the need for doctors to be regulated by government as analogous with the need for journalists to be regulated, distinguishing the professions on the grounds that doctors deal with “life and death”.
The letter finished with a request by the CEOs to meet with the Prime Minister in Canberra or Sydney to discuss these matters further.